The Baker Orange

Hodge and Simpson longtime teammates

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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Seniors Ericka Simpson and Jami Hodge are approaching the end of their Baker basketball careers together. But for Hodge and Simpson, their bond dates back before even their high school and middle school careers.

The two went to the same elementary school, but at first they played on different teams.

Both Hodge and Simpson’s dads were the coaches of their teams and decided to put the two teams together to form a competitive travel team when they were in fourth grade.

“We’ve always been close,” Hodge said. “We’d always go to each other’s houses and hang out.”

Simpson and Hodge continued playing together into high school with the Spring Hill Broncos from 2008-12.

As juniors, Hodge was named the Tri-County Player of the Year after scoring 17.9 points per game and grabbing 3.9 rebounds per game, while Simpson scored 14.9 points per game and dished out 2.3 assists per game.

As seniors the two swapped their postseason honors. Simpson was the Tri-County Player of the Year, despite Hodge leading the team in scoring. Simpson scored 12 points per game to go along with her 3.7 assists per game.

Both Simpson and Hodge were named first-team All-Frontier League performers as sophomores, juniors and seniors.

After their four years at Spring Hill the two decided to continue their playing careers, together, at Baker. Being in the Frontier League, they were used to playing in Baldwin City against the Bulldogs.

“We watched the two of them pretty consistently even after they signed because I needed to get to know them better as players,” head coach Ben Lister said. “We probably saw somewhere between four and seven of their high school games.”

The year before Hodge and Simpson came to Baker, the Wildcats finished last in the conference in Lister’s first season as head coach. The two were in Lister’s first recruiting class at Baker and have been key parts to the complete transformation of the Baker women’s basketball program.

“I’d seen Ericka over the summer a lot more than Jami because she played AAU,” Lister said. “I knew Jami was a really good athlete so I wanted to see what kind of player she was and what we could utilize with her when she got here.”

That recruiting class also featured All-Americans BriAnna Garza and Kyrstie Ehm as well as second-team all-conference performer Shea Shoemaker and fellow seniors Taylor Chase and Macy Wallisch.

This year’s senior class has won at least 20 games in each of the past three seasons. All four were sophomores on the 2013-14 team that won 17 straight games en route to a 27-7 season, including a Heart of America Athletic Conference regular season title.

Both Hodge and Simpson played in all 34 games, and each started one game in the championship season. Simpson was coming off of a knee injury and was never 100 percent throughout that season.The two combined for seven points per game, while coming off the bench as sophomores.

In 2014-15 Hodge and Simpson both made huge strides in their game. As juniors, and finally playing major roles on the team, both struggled with their starting roles early in the season.

“It was really hard and different at first because we weren’t used to playing that much,” Hodge said. “It took a while to adjust to it.”

The Wildcats went 6-3 through the first half of the conference schedule and then lost the first game of the second half to MNU at home. With a 6-4 conference record, Baker was playing in must-win games for the remainder of the season.

“We had almost forgotten how it felt to be the go-to players at the end of games,” Simpson said. “We were nervous a lot.”

Hodge and Simpson did not back down from the challenge. The Wildcats won their final eight games in conference play to go into the postseason at 14-4 and third in the Heart standings. Hodge and Simpson both averaged more than seven points per game throughout that stretch. The two became focal points for Baker.

“Everyone kind of did their own thing,” Hodge said. “We knew Kyrstie (Ehm) would be the go-to player and then we all had our roles. What made us successful was that we had five or six girls who were averaging six to eight points. That seemed to really work for us.”

After beating Graceland in the opening round of the conference tournament, Baker fell in the semifinals to the eventual champion Benedictine College Ravens. Despite not reaching the Heart title game, the Wildcats earned their second-straight national tournament appearance. Baker fell to Oklahoma Baptist 52-47 in the opening round at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, Missouri.

Ever since the loss at the national tournament, Hodge and Simpson have played at an entirely different level. This year they are playing like experienced seniors.

“Our biggest thing is our energy,” Simpson said. “This year the senior class and the upperclassmen came in saying, ‘we need this to be a good year’ and that sort of spread like wildfire through the younger players.”

Both are averaging double-digit points and are playing more than 31 minutes per game, more than anyone else on the team. The two have started every game this season. They almost have twin-telepathy at some moments.

“It’s gotten to the point where we seriously don’t even say a word,” Hodge said. “We just look at each other and know exactly how we’re feeling and what we need to do.”

The two have had almost identical statistics their entire careers.

Going into Baker’s game on Jan. 30 at Missouri Valley both Hodge and Simpson had exactly 663 career points. After 95 career games for Hodge and 117 career games for Simpson they were dead even.

The two were almost identical in scoring last season as well. Simpson scored 224 points in 2014-15, while Hodge scored 215.

“They both took very different paths to get where they are,” Lister said. “Jami really had to sit and learn a little bit and Ericka played right away. She played all four years and she’s probably going to be the all-time leader in games played in Baker history.”

Hodge will likely end up being the all-time leader in steals in school history. Simpson will likely play in more games than any Baker player.Hodge and Simpson’s impact will leave their mark on the Baker program and the record book.

“It’s been fun to watch each of them progress in different directions because they both had things they had to get better at, but they were very different aspects of what they had to get better at,” Lister said. “They’ve both been able to do that and turn themselves into what we thought would be really good four-year players and they’ve had outstanding careers, especially the last two years, and they’ve been difference makers for us.”

Whether the two of them want to talk about it or not, their games together will be coming to an end at the conclusion of this season.

“Our games are numbered,” Simpson said. “Sure, you can pick up a recreational team, but you’ll never have people counting on you to win.”

Simpson and Hodge have been Broncos together and now they’re Wildcats together. Playing together is all they’ve ever known.

“It’s been fun to watch them both develop in their own way,” Lister said.

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